Cognitive distortions describe irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way.
These distortions are common but can be hard to recognize if you don’t know what to look for. Many occur as automatic thoughts. They are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realize he or she has the power to change them. Many grow to believe that’s just the way things are.
If you’re human, you have likely fallen for a few of the numerous cognitive distortions at one time or another. The difference between those who occasionally stumble into a cognitive distortion and those who struggle with them on a more long-term basis is the ability to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking.
The emotional brain can, as it were, operate independently from the cognitive mind. But of course, it is still valuable to observe thinking errors, both because they result from excessive emotion and because they can, in turn, lead to it.
So how do we help clients begin to see that their thoughts may be serving them poorly?
People with anxiety and low self-esteem are susceptible to getting caught in an endless loop of negative thinking. It is important to take stock of your thoughts because the cycle they spur can end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Stress could cause people to adapt their thinking in ways that are useful for their immediate survival. But these thoughts aren’t rational or healthy long-term.
Cognitive distortions can take a serious toll on one’s mental health, leading to increased stress, depression, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become entrenched and may negatively influence the rational, logical way you make decisions.
Using limited factual evidence to hold a firm belief that actually is not true.
Individuals who overgeneralize tend to conclude that because something bad happened to them once or twice that it will repeatedly happen to them for their entire life. This distortion often holds hypothesis as fact rather than a hypothesis. Watch your vocabulary for always and never.
Distortion: “He never washes the dishes!”
Correction: “While it may not be as often as I like, he does occasionally wash the dishes.”
Singling out one aspect of a situation to the complete exclusion of others that should be considered
A mental filter is like a sieve you perpetually pass events through as they are encountered. As a result, all events have meaning and context based off of past experience. Mental filters have a way of smudging, distorting, and obstructing our view of current and future experiences and can cause disappointment and make us afraid of creative, new approaches to experiencing life. Look intentionally and forcefully for evidence that supports a different way of thinking.
Distortion: “My boss’ review was full of criticism.”
Correction: “My boss gave me some positive feedback with areas to improve.”
Having the certaintly of knowing what another person is thinking without having to ask.
While being able to read the intentions of others is a useful social skill, there is risk involved. Most of us think we are way better at reading others than we actually are. It is very easy to jump to conclusions when we think we know what the other person is thinking, even though we haven’t stopped to verify ourselves. Did you know that women’s intuition is proven to be a myth? Even among those you know very well and are close to, such as a spouse, you will only be able to guess correctly up to 80% of the time.[ii] Listen to others and don’t make assumptions. Make note of what you think they are thinking, then ask them what they actually were thinking.
Distortion: “He should have known I was upset about that!”
Jumping to conclusions
Tending to make irrational assumptions about people and circumstances.
We for instance assume that something will happen in the future (predictive thinking), or assume that we know what someone else is thinking (mind reading). The problem is that these conclusions are rarely if ever based on facts or concrete evidence, but rather based on personal feelings and opinions. As a result, they can often lead us astray. In order to successfully work through this cognitive distortion you must begin questioning whether other explanations or possibilities exist.
Constantly taking the blame for absolutely everything that goes wrong in our life.
Whenever anything doesn’t work out as expected, we immediately take the blame for this misfortune — irrelevant of whether or not we are responsible for the outcome. Taking responsibility for our life and circumstances, is of course quite admirable, but at the same time completely unhelpful if we end up feeling like a victim of circumstance. In order to successfully work through this cognitive distortion, question what part you played in the outcome and how you might not be entirely to blame.
Falls under the category of jumping to conclusions
Fortune telling falls under the category of jumping to conclusions. It occurs when you are so convinced that something will turn out badly that you are sure it is a foregone conclusion and there is nothing you can say or do to change the outcome.
8 Steps to Stop Cognitive Distortions… or at least slow them down.
1. Recognize and isolate the thought. Absolute words, like ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘can’t’ are usually clues you’ve got a cognitive distortion going on. So are really strong, negative words directed at yourself like, ‘hate,’ ‘stupid’ or ‘loser.’
2. Write it down. Yes, take your cognitive distortions to pen to paper. It makes a difference.
3. Then take your distress temperature. Zero to ten. Zero meaning your content and peaceful; ten that your misery is paralyzing.
4. Ask yourself: Is it reasonable to think that thought or is it unreasonable? Say the thought out loud. If a friend said that, would you agree or disagree?
If the thought is truly reasonable it probably isn’t a distortion.
If the thought is truly reasonable it probably isn’t a distortion. You just need to take responsibility for whatever it is that caused the thought and the resulting bad feeling and do something about it. Either decide to take action, or let it go, or both.
For example, when I said something mean to my sister and she reacted by getting mad, I felt horrible. Was it reasonable that she be mad? Well, yes it was. Was it reasonable for me to think I was a horrible person? No, that was unreasonable. But it was reasonable for me to feel remorse. It was up to me to take responsibility for hurting my sister, apologize, promise never to do it again, ask forgiveness and let it go.
If the thought is unreasonable:
5. What kind of cognitive distortion is it? All or nothing thinking? Fortune telling? Figure it out because chances are you have a pattern going on. Once you have the distortion labeled you will be in tune to when it happens again in a different context.
6. Write down a more reasonable thought to replace the distorted one. If you can’t come up with anything, think about what your friend would say. Or what would the angel say to the cognitive distorting devil?
7. Retake your distress temperature. Even if it’s just a few degrees lower, from a 9 to a 7, say, you are going in the right direction, and that’s a good thing.
8. Repeat as needed.